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Exercise is medicine: exercise and branched chain amino acids.

Exercise is a key component of any weight loss program. Yet a major challenge of weight loss protocols is controlling the compensatory reactions that naturally occur with increased activity, namely increased hunger and cravings, created by the unique hormonal changes that occur during exercise.(1-3)


Another confounding factor is maintaining muscle mass in those undergoing rigorous exercise regimens for weight loss. This is especially true when low-carbohydrate or low-calorie diets are combined with exercise.(9) Because muscle mass determines 40% of an individual's ability to handle insulin and approximately 80% of a person's blood sugar use, muscle is perhaps one of the most valuable resource in weight loss protocols.(5),(6)

The branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) may have special utilization in weight loss programs combining exercise with diet. BCAA supplementation has been shown to increase muscle mass, decrease hunger, regulate blood sugar, attenuate the stress hormone response of exercise, and possibly increase exercise capacity and fat-burning directly. (4),(7),(10-14)

BCAAs And Muscle Mass

The journal Obesity in 2008 showed that resistance training is one tool to help maintain muscle mass when dieting.(8) BCAAs are another. BCAAs, most notably leucine, interact with the anabolic cell signaling messenger mTOR, stimulating muscle growth alone and synergistically with resistance exercise.(15)

This is an important consideration, since studies have shown that traditional weight loss approaches can affect muscle mass and decrease metabolic rate (BMR) by 10% to 20%.(16) A slowed BMR is a predictor of "yo-yo" weight gain. Those with the largest metabolic declines induced by muscle loss are four times more likely to regain lost weight over the next 24 months.(17)

BCAAs Control Hunger, Cravings and Energy

Perhaps the most important component of maintaining an exercise regimen and diet plan is related to willpower. Due to the compensatory reactions created by excessive exercise and/ or dietary restriction, it is almost impossible to win the battle of wills against the physiology. BCAAs have special actions in regulating energy, controlling hunger, and potentially benefiting stress-induced cravings.

BCAA effects on hunger, cravings, and energy come from the ability of these aminos to generate the gluconeogenic precursors glutamine and alanine. This has a balancing effect on blood sugar. A March 2011 study by Gualano et al. showed that 3 days of supplementation with high-dose BCAA resulted in increased fat oxidation and exercise performance in response to glycogen depletion compared with a placebo. This was likely due to the ability of the BCAA supplements to maintain glycemic control as stated by the researchers: "Importantly, our findings suggest that BCAA supplementation appears to prevent the exercise-induced hypoglycemia, particularly in glycogen depleted subjects."

Obviously, the ability to maintain blood sugar balance in low-calorie or low-carbohydrate dieters will indirectly affect hunger, but exercise has direct hunger-inducing effect.(2) BCAA supplements have been shown to affect hunger directly and may provide a buffer to exercise's appetite stimulation. Both AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK) and mTOR signaling have hunger-suppressing effects in the hypothalamus. Leucine has been shown to adjust both signaling systems and reduce food intake.(13)

The effect on cravings is more indirect than BCAAs' impact on hunger. The blood-sugar balancing activity of BCAAs would likely affect decreasing cravings, but stress hormones may be involved as well. Excessive exercise and the stress of dieting may raise stress hormones.(18) The stress hormone cortisol has been implicated in brain-chemistry changes that induce cravings specifically for highly palatable foods (salt, sugar, starch, fat).(3) BCAA supplementation lowers the cortisol elevation often seen with intense and prolonged exercise.(7)

BCAAs and Fat Loss

A February 2011 population study out of the Journal of Nutrition by Qin et al. looked at a cohort of 4429 subjects from Japan, the UK, the US, and China.(19) There was a positive correlation for escalating intake of BCAAs and reduced risk of being overweight or obese.

A January 1997 article on competitive wrestlers shows the impact of BCAA on weight loss and exercise performance.(20) Competitive wrestlers are a good model for the study of calorie/ carb restrictive diets combined with intense exercise regimens. Twenty-five competitive wrestlers were randomized to 4 different low-calorie diets: low-calorie and low-protein, low-calorie control, low-calorie high-protein, and low-calorie and BCAA supplementation. The BCAA group lost the greatest amount of weight (9 pounds) and body fat (loss of 17%), and specifically lost weight from visceral adipose tissue (a reduction of 34%).

Finally, a pilot study out of the journal Age showed that a dose of 12 g BCAAs in combination with oleic acid and DHA resulted in a close to 4 pound weight loss within a period of only 2 weeks in women over age 38.(21) The researchers chose the BCAA leucine because of its effects on hunger and fat loss in other studies. "In conclusion, this study demonstrates that leucine ... may cause weight loss through signaling mechanisms to the brain and adipose tissue."

Clinical Implications

The dose of BCAA supplements used in studies range from 5 to 15 g daily and higher,(22) Some studies on appetite-suppressing effects suggest higher doses of 300 mg/kg body weight. Most information suggests a 3:1:1 ratio of leucine to valine to isoleucine.

Given the potential for negative compensatory reactions during weight loss exercise protocols, interventions that can maintain muscle mass and control hunger, energy, and cravings are needed. BCAAs have many overlapping mechanisms that may help weight loss efforts through exercise and dieting.


(1.) Church et al. Changes in weight' waist circumference and compensatory responses with different doses of exercise among sedentary, overweight postmenopausal women. PloS One. 2009;4(2):e4515.

(2.) Erdman et al. Plasma ghrelin levels during exercise- effects of intensify and duration. Regui! Pept. 2007;143(1-3):127-135.

(3.) Epel et al. Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress induced cortisol and eating behavior. Psychneuroendocrinology. 2001;2601:37-49.

(4.) Mero A. Leucine supplementation and intensive training, Sports Med. June 1999;27(6):347358.

(5.) Nastala et al. Skeletal muscle insulin resistance is fundamental to the cardiometabolic syndrome. J Cardionmtab Syndr. 2O06;l(1(11:47-52.

(6.) Jens et al. A muscle-specific insulin receptor knockout exhibits features of the metabolic syndrome of NIDDM without altering glucose tolerance. 1998;2(5):559-569.

(7.) Sharp et al. Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, April 2010;24(4):1124-1130.

(8.) Hunter et al. Resistance training conserves fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss. May 2008;16(5):927-1147.

(9.) Heilbronn et al. Effect of 6-month calorie restriciion on biomarkers of longevity' metabolic adaptation, and oxidative stress in overweight individuals: a randomized controlled trial. IAMA. 2006;295:1539-1548.

(10.) Layman et al. Dietary protein impact on glycemic control during weight loss,.J Nutt. April 2004;134(4) 968S-973S.

(11.) Gualano et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation enhances exercise capacity and

lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. J Sports Med Phys Fit 2011;51:82-88

(12.) Jitontir et al. Teucine for retention of lean mass. J Med Food. December 2008:1 1(4):606-609.

(13.) Tome et al. Protein, amino acids and the control of food intake. Br J Nuir. August 2004;92(S1): 261S-267S.

(14.) Layman et al. The role of leucine in weight loss diets and glucose homeostasis.J Nutr. January 2003;133(1):26IS-267S.

(15.) Apro et al. Influence of supplementation with branched-chain amino acids in combination with resistance exercise on p7056 kinase phosphorylation in resting and exer cising human skeletal muscle. Acta Physfofogfca, November 2010;200(3):237-248.

(16.) Hansen et al. The effects of exercise training on fat-mass loss in obese patients during energy restriction.Sports Med. Jan 2007 37(1):31-46.

(17.) Ravussin et al. Reduced rate of energy expenditure as a risk factor for body-weight gain. N Engl J Med. 25, 1988; 318(8):467-472.

(18.) Kern et al. Hormonal secretion during nighttime sleep indicating stress of daytime exercise. / Appl Physiol.1995;79(5):1461-8.

(19.) Qin et al. Higher branched-chain amino acid intake is associated with a lower prevalence of being overweight or obese in middle-aged Lasl Asian and Western adults. J Nutt. February 2011;141(2):249-254.

(20.) Mourier et al. Combined effects of calorie restriction and branehed-chain amino acid supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in elite wrestlers Int J Sports Med. January l997;l8(1):47-55.

(21.) Ordman AB. Pilot study for an age and gender-based nutrient signaling system for weight control. Age. 2008;30:201-208.

(22.) Krieder et al. ISSN exercise,hm\ sports nutrition review: research and recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. February 2010;7:7.

by Jade Teta, ND, CSCS, and Keoni Teta, ND, LAc, CSCS

jade[congruent to] | keoni[congruent to]
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Author:Teta, Jade; Teta, Keoni
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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